Minorities under attack as PM Imran Khan pushes ‘tolerant’ Pakistan

Fear factor: Elizabeth Lal, centre, was injured and her son-in-law killed by gunmen in Peshawar on July 9.   | Photo Credit: Muhammad Sajjad

It’s been a tough month for religious minorities in Pakistan, and observers warn of even tougher times ahead as Prime Minister Imran Khan vacillates between trying to forge a pluralistic nation and his conservative Islamic beliefs.

A Christian was gunned down because he rented in a Muslim neighbourhood in northwest Peshawar, not far from the border with Afghanistan. Another Christian, pastor Haroon Sadiq Cheeda, his wife and 12-year-old son were beaten by their Muslim neighbours in eastern Punjab and told to leave their village. The attackers screamed “you are infidels”.

An opposition politician was charged this week with blasphemy after declaring all religions were equal. A senior political figure, allied with the government and backed by Islamic extremists, stopped construction of a Hindu temple in the capital Islamabad.

Analysts and activists blame an increase in attacks on an indecisive Mr. Khan. They say he preaches a vision of a tolerant Pakistan where its religious minorities thrive as equals among an overwhelming Muslim majority. They say that at the same time he cedes power to extreme Islamic clerics, bowing to their demands and turning to them for the final say, even on matters of state.

“Imran Khan no doubt wants a more tolerant Pakistan, wants more accommodation for minorities, but the problem is he nullifies all of this by empowering extremist elements, so much so that it seems they can dictate to the state,” said Zahid Hussain, analyst and author of two books that track militancy in the region.

Phone and text messages left with Mr. Khan’s spokesman were not immediately returned.

The spokesman for Mr. Khan’s Religious Affairs Ministry, Imran Siddiqui, dismissed complaints that minorities have reason to be concerned. He said in every religion, there are “aggressive” clerics but neither Pakistan nor the Prime Minister were unduly pressured by them.

Khan’s concessions

Still, Mr. Khan’s list of concessions to the radical religious is lengthy.

When the coronavirus first emerged as a threat, Mr. Khan refused to shut down a gathering of tens of thousands of Islamic missionaries from across the globe. It wasn’t until they had reached Pakistan that he ordered it cancelled.

When Saudi Arabia closed its mosques and made the historic decision to cancel the Islamic pilgrimage of Haj to the faithful outside its borders, Pakistan refused to close its mosques after religious clerics vowed to take to the streets.

Mr. Khan hadn’t been in office more than a few months when he buckled to extremists and fired a minority Ahmadi Muslim from his economic commission despite his stellar qualifications.

When his political ally and speaker of the Punjab Provincial Parliament Pervez Elahi denounced the construction of a Hindu temple in the capital as being against Islam, Mr. Khan turned to the Council of Islamic Ideology to let it decide if public money can be used for its construction. He had promised $600,000 for its construction.

Mr. Khan isn’t the first politician to walk a religious tightrope in Pakistan. Successive military and elected governments have buckled to the pressure of Islamic extremists, who critics say terrorise with their ability to bring impassioned mobs on to the street. “It’s the fear of the establishment as to what they can do. They can cause mayhem across Pakistan,” said human rights activist Tahira Abdullah.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 5:58:36 AM |

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